Catering makes more than just a meal. It’s about bringing people together over a delicious variety of foods to connect and enjoy themselves. For most people, leisure time is a precious commodity of which there is not nearly enough. They want to spend their time and money on high quality experiences, and food is a big part of that.
Food not only feeds and satisfies people, but it sends a message, too. For example, having a variety of selections for those on special diets because of lifestyle, allergies, or other physical and elective considerations says, “This brand is inclusive, and wants everyone to be able to enjoy our events to the fullest”.
But how do you know what everyone wants? Yes, you need to become an expert in the top trends of 2020. But unless you know your audience, you’ll be lost in an expanding sea of adventurous eaters. It’s no secret that consumers are broadening their horizons- and their palates. There is massive new interest in new cultural trends and ingredients. In this experiential market, there is also a growing interest in interactive classes and hands-on demonstrations.
1. Local Food and Destination-Specific Cuisine
There is something to be said for local celebrity. This is especially true in cities where people pride themselves on locally sourced or homegrown food, lush wineries, or trademark spirits and drinks. People love staycations, so treat them to the very best their city or town has to offer. Doing this not only makes you into a local icon, but it can put your city on the map of specialties like beer, wine, or vegan food. And if you live in a big city that is famous (or infamous) for a certain selection, such as wine in NorCal or vegan food in San Francisco or L.A., partner up with a local catering business who does it differently. Lots of smaller, local businesses put their own special touch on popular favorites, such as Chinatown’s sourdough fortune cookies. If your city is known for growing organic herbs, rare or seasonal flowers, fruits, or rich spices, infuse food and drinks with them.
If you’ve got some high quality, beloved microbreweries in your home city or town, feature them at your event. Just be sure to include a non-alcoholic option. There is an increasing demand for CBD-infused beverages. Dishes cooked with CBD oil are more popular than ever, too, but is this trend right for your event? It depends largely on where you live and your demographic consumer base. States where marijuana is legal are obviously ahead of the game on this trend, with some companies offering CBD-infused coffee and virgin drinks.
Destination-specific cuisine is a little different. Instead of simply offering trademark local foods and drinks, destination-specific cuisines are foods or beverages associated with the region or location. Many regions have strong cultural influences, and you can design your own menu to reflect those uniquely, putting your own signature touches on food and cocktails. For example, the French Quarter in New Orleans is known for its- you guessed it- French-style bakeries and iconic desserts such as beignets, pralines, and any number of masterpieces involving chocolate mousse. If your event is close to a cultural hub like Chinatown, play on that by offering your own buffet-style China bar, where people can put together their own plate. Which leads us to our next suggestion.
2. Cultural Cuisine
This suggestion is on the opposite end of the spectrum from local cuisine- but is it really? As our society is becoming more diverse, which means that many different regions are known for cultural foods. It’s a trend you definitely want to tap into. It’s easy to do in cities with lots of ethnic neighborhoods, such as New York and San Francisco- think Chinatown in Manhattan and San Francisco, Little Italy, Koreatown, and so many more. But even the South is famous for its grits, country ham, pit barbecue, fried catfish, and more. And the Midwest prides itself on its hearty “all-American meals” featuring quality roast beef, steak, corn on the cob, and sweet apple pie for dessert.
In 2019, Diaspora Co. Cardamom hosted a book signing in honor of the popular culinary cookbook “Milk and Cardamom” by Hetal Vasavada. Held at The Ruby in San Francisco, the event featured ice cream inspired by traditional Indian kulfi from Koolfi Creamery- and a delectable selection of desserts from the cookbook.
3. Good Old-Fashioned Table-side Service
Tableside preparation used to be par for the course with white tablecloth dining. It was not at all unusual for fish to be deboned in front of guests, crepes would be flambeed, and yolks would even be mixed into meat when steak was served. However, in recent years, we’re seeing a comeback of this lost culinary art. Maybe it’s the novelty or romance of it the whole experience. Considering that, like many others, we inherited this distinguished art from the French, it’s not hard to imagine.
Speaking of the French and Romanticism, Chateaubriand is a luxurious way to serve meat that brings sophistication to the table. Named after Francois-Ren de Chateaubriand, the founder of Romanticism in French literature, the fish is made from a hearty cut of tenderloin. It is intended to serve two and is normally dressed with bearnaise sauce or glazed along with vegetables or mashed potatoes.
Cherries Jubilee is another iconic creation by a masterful French chef. We can credit Auguste Escoffier with the family favorite dish, in which cherries are slow-cooked in caramelized brown sugar and butter. Combined with sweet brandy, the cherries are poured over vanilla ice cream tableside. Can you hear the “oohs” and “ahhs” of delighted guests already?
Last but certainly not least, never underestimate the power of coffee. Instead of just offering the classics, try serving Spanish coffee tableside. How’s it done? The server dips the rim of the glass in lemon or lime juice, then proceeds to add sugar, rum, brandy, and Kahlua. Garnish it with any combination of whipped cream, spices, sprinkles, and a cherry on top. There you have it- a whole new take on traditional coffee.
4. Putting Wellness on the Menu
People are more concerned with eating healthy, nutritious foods than ever. Unless yours is a vegetarian or vegan event, we recommend offering healthy options for omnivores and herbivores. Fats that are high in protein and low in fat are generally healthier, such as turkey, chicken, and salmon, are popular. For sides and vegan options galore, we recommend putting whole, organic foods and snacks on the menu. Think fruit-and-vegetable based meals such as veggie or rice paper rolls, quinoa-stuffed peppers, pasta salad, or even cauliflower pizza or hot wings.
Some delicious whole snacks include edamame, legumes, dairy-free chocolate or vanilla-covered strawberries, and party mixes of nuts and seeds. Antioxidant-rich superfoods like kale, artichokes, acai, and even dark chocolate fuel the fun and energize your guests to engage, which is what they came to do.
5. Grabbing to Go
Particularly at conferences and workshops, people need energy to absorb information, interact with each other, and get the most out of meetings. Being hungry leads to being drained, so don’t let your guests get to that point- or if they do, make sure there are always snacks nearby to fuel their experience.
We’re not talking about full meals here- these are made-to-eat snacks that require no preparation and can be consumed quickly or on the go. Snacks should be offered in small portions and easy to transport. The key here is to serve up winning combos like cheese and wine or bite-sized turkey pinwheel sandwiches (you can substitute the turkey with veggies or even a tofurkey option). Create a perfect pairing by combining each snack with a specialty drink that compliments it. Think champagne and oysters, red wine and red meat or hard cheese, or chocolate and coffee. Or beer and pigs-in-a-blanket, for that matter.
The grab-and-go trend is traveling far, cropping up all over the country and beyond. Food counters offer salad shakers, parfaits, take-and-bake pizzas, and more. We recommend giving your guests ample opportunities to eat well on the move. A lot of people have the false idea that the faster the food, the lower the quality. But in 2020, catering trends are focused on reinventing the concept of eating on the go.
6. All-Inclusive Menus
Dietary considerations are more numerous and complicated than you might imagine. But did you know that the majority of U.S. households have at least one member with dietary restrictions? It’s imperative to regard dietary restrictions as more than just preferences; in many situations, they are a medical necessity, such as in the case of allergies, sensitivities, medication interactions, or Celiac disease. But even when dietary restrictions don’t directly affect safety, they are often still more than just preferences- they can be part of one’s lifestyle. (This is not to imply that preferences aren’t just as important, because they are!)
Many people choose not to eat gluten, either because they are intolerant or avoid it for health-conscious reasons. So including gluten-free choices is a must, as is creating Kosher and Halal options. Again, it comes down to knowing your audience. Ask about any special dietary needs and preferences on your registration form. This way, you’ll have a variety of options for everyone, and you’ll save on waste costs and complaints!
7. Plant-Based Proteins and Vegan Desserts
Plant-based foods and beverages are also vital to just about any catering menu in 2020. Even commercial fast food chains like Carl’s Jr. and Burger King are offering veggie burgers now. Some more vegan food trends to be aware of this year: Fully vegan fast food, dairy-free chocolate and “milk” options for coffee, bean burgers, vegan eggs, and variety of new vegan cheeses.
According to Nielsen, a top retail data company, plant-based food sales topped $3.3 billion in 2018. And the trend has only picked up since then: approximately one in three Americans now identify as “flexitarians” who primarily eat a vegetarian diet but occasionally indulge in meat or fish.
Again, know your audience. Include questions about special dietary needs and preferences on the registration form and encourage guests to RSVP with this information.
8. Going Green
As environmental awareness increases, sustainable foods and practices are becoming more mainstream than ever. There is an expectation that brands will be conscious of the climate crisis we are facing and do their part to source food locally, reduce carbon emissions, create biodegradable waste options, and use renewable packaging. Many brands are eliminating plastic items like straws altogether and using more sustainable products instead.
When it’s not possible to locally source food and other resources, brands will be vigilant about tracing products back to sustainable sources. Obtaining food from local sources also gives you the opportunity to showcase local flavors, spices, and special fruits or vegetables that grow in the area.
9. Immersive Dining Experiences
Welcome to 2020. People no longer care as much about big names and price tags as they do high-quality (and Instagrammable) experiences. And few hashtags are more wildly popular than #foodie. Enter the immersive dining experience. An alternative to the standard white tablecloth restaurant approach, today’s dining experiences include photo walls to share on social media, hands-on demos, guest-generated music playlists, pop-ups, and more. Pop-ups can be miniature “stores” located at the front of a restaurant in which new foods are introduced with demos or buffets. They can also be in-house experiences that welcome local culinary talent with hands-on demos and/or photo ops.
Another vital element of experiential dining involves immersive sensory experiences. Typically, companies transform their restaurants or dining spaces into another environment. A popular example of this is “bringing the outdoors indoors”. Trees, wall decor made from flowers or greenery, fountains, and woodsy or saltwater scents can all enhance the outdoors theme.
Of course, experiential dining can also have cultural themes. For example, a Japanese-style feel could be accented by Asian-inspired furniture, bonsai trees, lamps, sconces, and candles. Romantic Tuscan decor might boast earth tones and sunny hues, Tuscan-inspired furniture, rustic wall grilles, or canvases of Italian vineyards.
10. Tea Bars
You may think that only people in England sit down for a cuppa, but authentic tea stations are on the rise in the U.S. If you can believe it, research has shown that Americans actually drink more tea than coffee on average. So don’t leave your tea lovers wanting!
Generally speaking, tea bars are a contemporary alternative to Victorian tea houses that immerse guests in a completely authentic experience. However, they typically appeal to young tea drinkers and those on the go- which covers a lot of people.
Why are tea bars becoming so popular? For starters, health and wellness is trending (and hopefully, dare we say, becoming a lifestyle for many). Various teas are infused with antioxidants, have digestive benefits, reduce stress, or boost energy. Tea is also traditionally associated with comfort, so even the most modern tea bars tend to have a cozy feel that people love.
Now that we’ve given you our top ten trends for 2020, you can do the research you need to see how you can use them to cater to your unique audience!